1. Sock It 2 Me (ft Da Brat)
In the early 90s, New York was home to an R&B collective, the Swing Mob, comparable in talent and influence to the city’s 70s folk scene. Missy Elliott would become its Bob Dylan, a breakout star with a brain full of fireworks, shooting out blazing innovations too fast for her audience to keep up, let alone her rivals. Initially as part of the group Sista, then in partnership with Tim “Timbaland” Mosley, she honed the skills as a singer, rapper, writer, producer and performer that made her own shot at the big time, Supa Dupa Fly, such a commercial and critical success. Yet the album’s most memorable track was one of its least sonically representative: a jaunty, tuneful paean to sex, a subject Elliott has always rejoiced in addressing directly. Constructed around a sample from a Delfonics song, Ready Or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide from Love) – already the basis for a Fugees hit the previous year – Sock It 2 Me was a huge hit in turn, helped along by a characteristically dazzling video by Hype Williams that defied industry expectations by exaggerating rather than playing down Elliott’s body shape. Had this been Missy Elliott’s first single and not her second, it would surely rank among the greatest debuts of all time.
2. Hot Boyz (Remix ft Lil Mo, Nas, Eve and Q-Tip)
Excellent though much of it is, Supa Dupa Fly explored where R&B had recently been – echoing the work Elliott and Timbaland had crafted for Jodeci, SWV and Aaliyah – rather than sounding new or alien. It was her second album, Da Real World, that sounded as though it was beamed in from the future – shiny, synapse-popping, crackling with ingenuity and mischief on such tunes as Beat Biters, Stickin’ Chickens, and the screw-you reclamation of She’s a Bitch. From the start, Elliott had two major subjects: Missy Elliott’s brilliance, and Missy Elliott’s libido – and there was plenty of both to go around. It’s the latter that drives this taut and simmering celebration of female lust, reflecting the gaze of oglers back at them to see if they come up to scratch.
3. Get Ur Freak On
Talent borrows, runs the aphorism, and genius steals. Like most great innovators (David Bowie being a prime example), Elliot has an instinct for exactly what to steal and when. Her third album, Miss E… So Addictive (the E was circled, like an embossed pill, to leave no doubt as to what she was getting at), followed Madonna on to the electronica dancefloor. Yet it remained unmistakably an R&B record – and a masterpiece, the high-point of a run that mirrored and defined a golden age for mainstream R&B. It was fashionable at the time for mainstream music to borrow from bhangra; typically Elliott did it best, if not first, on this absurdly catchy and danceable track.
4. One Minute Man (ft. Ludacris)
Peak modernist Missy: a knowing, witty, filthy, whip-tight tune, all coiled energy and single-entendres, that doesn’t so much turn the tables on attitudes to women in rap and R&B as simply refuse to acknowledge them in the first place. In Elliott’s world, she’s in charge, men are there to serve her purposes, and she’s equally happy to serve theirs if it gets her what she wants. A rap from her old pal Ludacris inevitably recalls the Dominoes’ splendid and saucy 1951 novelty hit, Sixty Minute Man.
5. 4 My People (Basement Jaxx Radio Edit)
The most club-oriented number in Elliott’s catalogue, and one of her biggest European hits, thanks to a first-rate reworking from Basement Jaxx, who at that time were turning everything they touched to gold. Elliott’s salute to hedonism, set to a speed garage beat, is eccentric and wonderful; there isn’t another record quite like it.
6. Work It
A stone-cold classic. Elliott’s fourth album, Under Construction, is an amazing record. It harks back to old school hip-hop while incorporating the southern rap styles from Florida and Georgia then dominating the game (Elliott is from Virginia). It features half a dozen tracks which might have made this list – but none reach the heights of Work It, which manages somehow to be retro and thoroughly novel, with its pattering, housey percussion (sampled from Blondie’s Heart of Glass), comic sound effects, lascivious slang (“badonkadonk”, “chocha”) virtuoso rhyming, crafty backmasking, and glorious chorus: “I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it.” Lewd, joyous and irrepressible, a Tex Avery cartoon made music, this is the essence of Missy Elliott in five inspired minutes.
7. Tweet: Oops (Oh My) (ft Missy Elliott)
A ringer, technically, but as Elliott’s work for others merits a run-down of its own (see also: the superb Rockwilder remix of Bootylicious by Destiny’s Child), it would be a shame to leave it out. She co-wrote this delectable number with her protege and Swing Mob associate Tweet, and Timbaland produced it. A different voice allows for a sinuous, leisurely sensuality distinct from Elliott’s own hyper-harged sexual assertiveness. It’s one of pop’s outstanding tributes to women pleasing themselves; no surprise that Elliott should, let’s say, have a hand in it.
8. Let Me Fix My Weave
Elliott was unhappy with her fifth album, the raucous, aggressive, crunk-influenced This Is Not a Test!, feeling she had been pressured into rushing it out. It had no standout hit, yet did not lack for remarkable tracks. Perhaps the most emblematic of them is this hilarious stomper, in which once again Elliott proves more than a match for any male rapper’s preening vanity and lecherous braggadocio, undercut as ever with a sly self-awareness of which few of her counterparts showed any sign.
9. Irresistible Delicious (ft. Slick Rick) One notable exception, however, was Slick Rick, who here delivers a wry, drawling turn on this droll and languid tall tale of collaboration leading to fornication. It appears on The Cookbook; at 12 years old, Elliott’s most recent album, and also her most underrated. It has quality, range and maturity, and just as Under Construction did, it showcases her flair for breathing new life into old sounds.
Elliott has a knack for producing songs that sound rather like another, specific number, but not quite enough to be considered a knock-off. In her case, it’s more likely to be her claiming back what had been borrowed in the first place. Her most recent single, I’m Better (2017), for instance, has a definite hint of Formation by Beyoncé, who has benefited a great deal, directly and indirectly, from Elliott’s inventiveness. Fair exchange is no robbery. Arriving soon after the Pussycat Dolls’ 2005 hit Don’t Cha, the similar sounding Mommy works as that song’s serendipitous counterpoint. It’s an overtly feminist polemic casting “Mommy” (“The definition of mommy is not a chick with kids / Mommy means the boss, the money-maker”) as a figure invested with power, allure, autonomy and fleshly abundance – like an ancient earth goddess channelled through a hip-hop track. Which stands as a neat enough summary of Elliott’s presence, stature and achievements.